New NICHD Communications Director Kerri Childress is a Vietnam-era Navy veteran with a deep regard for the power of research to improve people’s lives. She is reminded of this power every day at the NICHD because, as she says, the Institute’s research touches some facet of every person’s life and health. Ms. Childress discusses her passion for women’s and veterans’ health and how the Institute is working to reach a range of diverse audiences with information for their daily lives.
Ms. Childress joined the NICHD in August 2013.
Q: You are the new Communications Director for the NICHD. Describe your career path before coming to the NICHD.
Ms. Childress: Actually, my career started at the age of 19 when I was waitressing at a truck stop in El Paso, Texas, and went, “No, there has got to be more to life than this.” I didn’t have very many options at that time, but the military was a viable option. So I joined the Navy. The Navy gave me an education. It gave me on-the-job training. It truly did set me up for the rest of my life. When I got out of the military, I had the full GI Bill, which paid for all my college education. My first three homes were bought using VA [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] loans. I felt very indebted to the Navy, and to the men and women I served with.
I went into the Navy during Vietnam and a lot of my friends served in combat. It was then that I realized nobody lives through combat and doesn’t come home unchanged. I had the feeling that I owed the country for all it had given me, and I owed these men and women who went to combat and served in arduous conditions. So the Navy started me on the pathway of taking care of veterans, and that’s what I’ve done pretty much my entire life.
I have worked at Arlington National Cemetery, the U.S. Army Military District of Washington, the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home, and more than 12 years with VA. I had so many opportunities in those years to make a difference and to touch lives. It is a career I am very proud of, and I admire very, very much the hundreds of thousands of men and women who care for our veterans every day.
Q: Why did you choose to work at the NICHD?
I always thought that I would end my career working for the VA. But life takes interesting turns now and again. I was having dinner with a girlfriend and she asked me what it was about the VA that I particularly liked. I told her I was passionate about women’s health issues, especially military sexual trauma. I wanted to ensure that the women veterans had the same level and quality of care that our men did. And I added, “The other thing I find fascinating about the VA is the research. VA is doing wonderful research that is having an impact not just on our military men and women who have been injured, but on our society at large.”
Two weeks later, she sent me a link to the job here. She said, “I know you really love the VA, but this job seems about perfect for you.” Honestly, she could not have been more right. It has just been a dream job. I really love working here.
Q: What would be one interesting thing that you would like to tell the public about the NICHD?
Not at all sure it’s possible to narrow it down to one thing. The very name, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, is in and of itself so broad that I don’t think people have a concept of all the areas our research covers, and how much we truly do for the health of all people—not just children. I don’t think many people realize we sponsor rehabilitation research, including working with people with traumatic brain injury. I met with our National Center for Medical Rehabilitation Research and, maybe because I came from the VA, I felt a real connection to what they are doing.
And the National Children’s Study is a huge part of this Institute. I think there is a lot of information we have to get out about the Study—where we are and where we are going, and how the Study is essential to better understand and improve America’s health—today and tomorrow. These are just two of the hundreds of health areas we touch.
Q: Why is the work of the Public Communications Branch important? How does it enhance the scientific mission?
The research that the NICHD is doing and funding is going to make a difference to the lives of people, not just in this country, but literally all around the world. If those messages and if those lessons that we are learning through that research are not communicated well, then we are losing a huge opportunity to positively change people’s lives and improve the health of the world. Communications is critically important to our research mission.
NICHD’s research is important not only to clinicians who care for children, but important to mothers and fathers to improve their own health and the health of their children. It is the Communications Office’s responsibility to find the right channels to get information to the right audiences with messages that will resonate.
I’ll give you an example that I’m very proud of. We have an extensive outreach campaign called Safe to Sleep®—how to put your baby safely to sleep, what to do and what not to do, in order to reduce the incidence of SIDS [Sudden Infant Death Syndrome] deaths (which, by the way, we have done dramatically across the country over the past 10 or 15 years). However, research showed that the state of Mississippi still had a very high rate of SIDS—the highest in the country—so we decided to focus our outreach efforts there; a pilot if you will. We just got a news article yesterday from The Clarion-Ledger out of Mississippi, where the public health office announced that from 2011 to 2012, SIDS deaths were cut by 50 percent. Now, I’m not saying there is an absolute connection, but I am saying we were the only game in town during that year talking about Safe to Sleep®. Did we have an impact? Yes, we had an impact. That is what good communications and good outreach can do.
Q: What do you see as the impact of changes in communications on how the government communicates with the public?
I think the government has to pick up the pace. I understand about security and privacy of the people—I’ve been in the government for 30 years. But we were two or three steps behind the rest of the country when it came to moving out with Facebook, Twitter, blogs, YouTube, etc. If we are going to be heard, we have to go where people are listening.
We also have an obligation to the American taxpayer to tell them how we are spending their money, and how that money is impacting the health care of their families and their friends—and even our friends and family in the global world—families in sub-Saharan Africa and India. We need to communicate accurately, compassionately and timely—sometimes difficult to do within the government.
Q: Do you find yourself taking your work home more now than in previous positions?
I’m at a point in my life where my kids are grown, but I know it can be a difficult balancing act when you’re a mother and a professional woman. I’m lucky, I have the most spectacular husband in the world who quite frankly loves to hear about my work. He is brilliant. I can hand him a research paper and say, “Read this and help me here.” And he does. So, yes, I do bring my work home, but I have a husband who actually loves to be part of my work life, too.
You spend so much of your time at work that to segregate life at home from life at work is impossible for me. Besides, I feel passionate about both. So my staff knows lots about my family because I’m not at all afraid to talk about them. My office is full of pictures of family. And my family knows what I do at work because I do bring it home—because it is all part of who I am.
Q: Is there anything you want to add or anything we didn’t ask you that you’d like to say?
I think one of the most important goals in a communications office is working as a team. That is one of the things I felt most fortunate about in my new job here. I walked into a wonderful spirit of collaboration not only within the communications office, but also throughout the Institute. Everybody is there for everybody else and everyone has a common mission. Going back to your earlier question about family and work—NICHD is like a second family to me.